Robert Kennedy despised Lyndon Johnson but it's not clear to me why.

Johnson was a dutiful vice-president and honored JFK's legacy by passing the civil rights act that Kennedy would likely have been incapable of passing himself.

One may say it was Vietnam, but the hostilities seem to have begun far earlier than that. Not to mention that it was the Kennedy administration which got the US into that quagmire and LBJ was pretty much just left holding the bag with an impossible situation beyond his control

So, why did RFK hate LBJ?

  • 18
    You're looking for reasons beyond them both being aggressive, egotistical, overbearing asses [note that these are not necessarily bad traits in a politician!} who were political rivals? And as a Yankee, was prejudiced against Southerners? And was 30 years younger? (I think it was a miracle they worked together at all.)
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 1:16
  • 8
    "plainly obvious" in what source? Commented Jul 5, 2019 at 1:19
  • @MarkOlson Can Catholics be Yankees? Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 19:07
  • @Rodrigo de Azevedo Times change. An 18th century impossibility can be a 20th century commonplace.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 20:48
  • 1
    @Rodrigo de Azevedo Oh, yes, it was deep and widespread. It's much lessened in these days -- JFK in many ways marked a watershed.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jun 26, 2020 at 20:58

2 Answers 2


Short Answer

Robert Kennedy's dislike of LBJ dates back to before they even met (in 1953), and probably started with the latter's humiliating (for the Kennedy family) re-telling of the removal (in 1940) of RFK's father, Joseph Kennedy, as ambassador to the UK. Added to this were the many personal (especially background and personality) and political differences between LBJ and RFK, and other comments made by LBJ about the Kennedys which angered RFK.


Robert A. Caro's The Passage of Power goes into some detail on this, dating RFK's antipathy towards LBJ to before they had met for the first time. Leaving aside the political aspects (especially disagreements over Vietnam) which are mentioned in the Wikipedia page on Robert F. Kennedy, Caro relates the first meeting between the two in January 1953 in the Senate cafeteria where RFK was sitting at a table with Joseph McCarthy and others:

As Johnson, Busby and Reedy walked by, McCarthy, as was his custom, jumped up to shake Johnson’s hand, calling him, as senators were already starting to do, “Leader,” and McCarthy’s staffers also rose— except, quite conspicuously, for Bobby, who sat unmoving, with a look on his face that Busby described as “sort of a glower.”

Lyndon Johnson knew how to handle that situation. Moving around the table, he extended his hand to take McCarthy’s and those of the standing staffers, and, when he got to Bobby Kennedy, stood there, with his hand not exactly extended but, in Busby’s words, “sort of halfraised,” looking down at Kennedy. For a long moment Kennedy didn’t move. The glower had deepened into something more. “Bobby could really look hating,” Busby says, “and that was how he looked then. He didn’t want to get up, but Johnson was kind of forcing him to,” and finally, without looking Johnson in the eye, he stood up and shook his hand.

Later, after the Johnson group had finished their breakfast and were leaving the cafeteria, Busby asked, “What was that all about in there?” and Johnson replied, “It’s about Roosevelt and his father.”...The long relationship between Joseph P. Kennedy and Franklin Roosevelt had ended in acrimony and bitterness, and Johnson, the young congressman, was a Roosevelt protégé.

To make things worse, LBJ had for many years been telling the story of how Roosevelt (FDR) had fired Joseph Kennedy as Ambassador to the UK (LBJ had been in the presence of Roosevelt when FDR had spoken to the elder Kennedy on the phone):

Johnson related how Roosevelt, in his booming voice, had said, “Joe, how are ya? Been sittin’ here with Lyndon just thinkin’ about you, and I want to talk to you, my son. Can’t wait.… Make it tonight,” and then, hanging up the phone and turning to him, had said, with a smile, “I’m gonna fire the sonofabitch.”

This was, unsurprisingly, humiliating to RFK, who was very close to his father, especially as Johnson, a skilled raconteur, told the story many times and, apparently, with great relish while making use of his gift for mimicry.

LBJ friend and advisor Tommy Corcoran related another incident when RFK felt the Kennedy name to have been slighted by LBJ, this one concerning the run-up to the 1956 presidential election and Johnson's unsuccessful attempt to gain the Democratic nomination. At a meeting with Corcoran, Joseph Kennedy, accompanied by his son RFK, made an offer:

If Johnson would announce his intention to run for President and promise privately to take Jack Kennedy as his running mate, Joe would arrange financing for the ticket.

Source: Robert Dallek, 'Lone Star Rising: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1908–1960'


Corcoran put the proposition before Lyndon, who turned it down. “Lyndon told me he wasn’t running and I told Joe,” Corcoran recalls. “Young Bobby … was infuriated. He believed it was unforgivably discourteous to turn down his father’s generous offer.”

Source: Dallek

Corcoran also relates that the calmer JFK was “more circumspect" about the rejected offer. Geoffrey Hodgson, in JFK and LBJ: The Last Two Great Presidents, also mentions a later incident of LBJ attacking Joseph Kennedy, this time at the Democratic National Convention in 1960. LBJ

attacked the founding father of the Kennedy clan.... Joseph P. Kennedy, ambassador to London before World War II, had been distinctly sympathetic to those British conservatives led by Neville Chamberlain, the prime minister always portrayed by the cartoonists with an umbrella, who sought to appease Hitler. “I wasn’t any Chamberlain-umbrella policy man,” LBJ assured the Washington state delegation. “I never thought Hitler was right.” Robert Kennedy, for one, never forgot or forgave this slur on his father

But there was more to it than that:

But there was also the aspect that lay beyond the political, and beyond analysis, too, the aspect that led George Reedy to ask, “Did you ever see two dogs come into a room … ?” There was Bobby’s hatred for liars, and his feeling that Lyndon Johnson “lies all the time … lies even when he doesn’t have to lie.” There was his hatred for yes-men—and for those who wanted to be surrounded by yes-men—and Johnson’s insistence on being surrounded by such men, an insistence which, Bobby was to say, “makes it very difficult, unless you want to kiss his behind all the time.” He detested the politician’s false bonhomie, and Johnson embodied that bonhomie. “He [Bobby] recoiled at being touched,” and of course Lyndon Johnson was always touching and hugging. And talking. “It was southwestern exaggeration against Yankee understatement,” Arthur Schlesinger has written. “Robert Kennedy, in the New England manner, liked people to keep their physical distance. Johnson … was all over everybody.” So many of Bobby Kennedy’s pet hates were embodied in Lyndon Johnson.

Source: Caro

Caro also cites Harry McPerson, who was LBJ's counsel and speechwriter, and William vanden Heuvel, assistant to RFK:

Says Harry McPherson, who had worked for Johnson before the vice presidency, “If your brother is President, and you’ve got this powerhouse accustomed to being in command as Vice President, it would make you as suspicious as anything.” Kennedy’s aide William vanden Heuvel says that Robert Kennedy saw Johnson as “a manipulative force” who could, if he ever got off his leash, be very difficult to rein in again. So the leash had to be kept tight.

Source: Caro

Mutual Contempt: Lyndon Johnson, Robert Kennedy, and the Feud that Defined a Decade by Jeff Shesol goes into great depth on the LBJ - RFK relationship. However, as Caro observes by citing RFK himself, there was a recognition of LBJ's consummate political skills:

“I can’t stand the bastard,” he once said to Richard Goodwin, “but he’s the most formidable human being I’ve ever met.” “He just eats up strong men,” he said on another occasion. “The fact is that he’s able to eat people up, even people who are considered rather strong figures.”

Despite the animosity, LBJ and RFK could, and did, put on a show of mutual support in public. Johnson, for example, campaigned in New York for RFK when he contested a Republican-held New York senate seat (at the same time, many 'celebrity' democrats - among them Gore Vidal and Paul Newman - were supporting RFK's republican rival Kenneth Keating). In private, though, RFK's dislike of LBJ continued unabated.

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RFK's New York senate campaign, 1964. Image source


Why did Robert F. Kennedy loathe Lyndon B. Johnson?

Short Answer: The Kennedy's were entitled, born into a family which had groomed them to be President. They were extremely well educated having attended the best universities. They were accustomed to power having circulated with the wealthiest and most powerful people in the country from an early age. They achieved their political offices based on their famous name with little or no experience. John Kennedy Congress and Senate victories were achieved through the political machine built and paid for by their father Joe Kennedy, eventually transforming John Kennedy into the youngest man ever elected president. Joe Kennedy one of the Wealthiest men in the Country afforded these opportunities to his sons. Jack Kennedy became attorney General in his Brother's administration. Everything about the Kennedys was the antithesis of Johnson whose father was a farmer and minor politician from Texas that never outgrew state politics. Where the Kennedy's were young, Johnson was old. Where the Kennedy's were socially liberal, Johnson was a long champion of segregation and champion for the socially conservative south. Where Kennedys were crusaders, Johnson was a cold blooded pragmatic. Where the Kennedy's were inexperienced, Johnson had decades of experience in the house and senate and had spent the last decade as Senate Majority Leader. Where the Kennedy's were cultured Johnson was abrasive, vulgar(public nudity), and physically intimidating. The Kennedy's accustomed to differential treatment, reached Washington DC in a Time where Johnson was at the height of his power in the Senate as Majority Leader. Johnson whose political style did not include deference to political inferiors, rather Johnson's brand of politics was to physically and mentally confront and break such irritants. Both Kennedys had appeared on Johnsons radar and experienced "Johnson's Treatment". When Johnson became Kennedy's VP, a political necessity for both, the Kennedys delighted in demonstrating their authority and Johnson's unaccustomed powerlessness to resist them.

Detailed Answer:
It wasn't Bobby Kennedy who hated Lyndon B. Johnson, it was all the Kennedys. As a southern conservative segregationist who had been in the congress (since 1937) and senate (since 1949) politically Johnson stood for many things the Kennedy's despised. As the powerful Majority Leader in the senate(53-61) while JFK(junior Senator from Ma) and RFK(assistant prosecutor for the committee for unAmerican Activities) both would have been in a position to experience how Johnson practiced his politics. Johnson's brand of Politics was a combination of Folksy charm, physical and mental intimidation, and odd challenges to one's manhood sometimes accompanied by displays of public nudity. One can imagine how these political tactics would be received by the young sons from a wealthy and entitled new england family. The Kennedys would not have been intimidated by Johnson, but nor were they in a position to dismiss or change Johnson's treatment of them. Nobody was, such was Johnson's power in the Senate. Johnson treated inferiors. (dismissively, vulgar over familiarity, and contempt).

Example of Johnson's behavior in the Senate is given by Barry Goldwater who was defeated by Johnson in 1968.

Goldwater. (Barry M. Goldwater)
Johnson shook hands warmly He put his hand on my shoulder. In the Senate, we called it the "half Johnson": You were in a bit of trouble, but it wasn't serious. When he stretched his long arm around your back to the other shoulder that was the "full Johnson." It meant you weren't cooperating and he was going to squeeze you on some project you needed back home until you voted for his latest pet bill. Then there was "skinny-dip Johnson," who invited you to the White House pool and insisted you swim in the raw with him. Some fellows got embarrassed when Johnson began leading them around the basement without a towel. A few would agree to almost anything to keep their shorts on. Not me. I've been swimming in the nude since I was a kid.
When Johnson negotiated, and it was clear that he felt some deal would be proposed, his eyes would begin to narrow. He was taking a bead on you, as he would on a squirrel. It was his intimidation routine. I began that day by saying that both of us had been around Washington a long time, that we were divided by philosophy and party but that we shared a love of country.

LBJ Used One Thing to Control Others, Became Known as Johnson-Treatment

Johnson seems to have turned this kind of behavior into an important part of the Johnson treatment. It was a way to establish a kind of macho dominance over the people he was speaking to. And, more importantly, it let him show off his penis. While standing at the urinal, he would sometimes swing around to continue the conversation he was having, his genitals hanging free. Once he even pointed it out to a lawmaker standing next to him and asked, “You ever seen anything this big?” Johnson then continued speaking about some upcoming legislation as he swung his penis around in his hand.

Johnson was famously proud of his penis, affectionately nicknaming it “Jumbo.” And he often found ways to work it into a conversation.

Johnson as the powerful Senate Majority Leader was openly and publicly contemptuous of the junior senator from Massachusetts, John F. Kennedy. Johnson was a tall physically intimidating guy who portrayed himself as a mans man. He physically dominated rooms with this presence. His handshake has been called a two handed death grip which he used physically and mentally intimidated people into political alignment. Kennedy was a rather frail intellectual with chronically bad back. Johnson

John F. Kennedy Library Interview with Robert Caro
It was a fascinating relationship. It started when Johnson really was the Majority Leader and Jack Kennedy was a young senator, not that interested in the Senate. To Johnson, all that mattered was how effective you were in the Senate, and he had absolute contempt for Jack Kennedy. His actual quote, if I recall it from my book, is he was pathetic as a Senator. He didn't even know how to address the Chair.

President Kennedy was then, of course, in very bad health, and his back was terrible, and he had these two operations. Johnson mocked that; he said, "Did you ever see his ankles? They're only this big around," he used to say, "and he's sickly, yellow, yellow, not a man's man."

Bobby Kennedy(27 years old) was an assistant prosecutor for Joseph Mccarthy's Committee on unAmerican activities, likewise would have been familiar with Johnson's famous proclivities first hand.

John F. Kennedy Library Interview with Robert Caro
Every morning, Lyndon Johnson has breakfast in the Senate cafeteria, which is on the second floor of the Old Senate Building, and Senator McCarthy has a big table near the cashier's desk that he sits at with four or five of his staffers every morning. So this morning Johnson walks in and there's a new staffer there, Robert Kennedy. Senator McCarthy jumps up, as everybody did on Capitol Hill, to pay deference to Johnson. He says, "Good morning, Mr. Leader. Great job yesterday, Mr. Leader. Anything I can do for you, Mr. Leader?" And all of his staff jumps up so Johnson can shake their hands. .
One person doesn't get up at that table, and it's Robert Kennedy. Well, Johnson knows what to do in every encounter of that type. He walks around the table shaking hands and stops in front of Robert Kennedy and sort of puts his hand partway out like this, so Robert Kennedy has to get up and take it.
In trying to explain to me what happens, Reedy said, "Did you ever see two dogs that didn't know each other that came into a room and all of a sudden there's a low growl and the hair starts to rise on the back of their neck?" He says, "Those two guys just hated each other from the moment they saw each other."

In 1964 John Kennedy out politicized LBJ for the Democratic Nomination for Presidency. Where Johnson had experience, Kennedy made the election about youth. Where Johnson had been in the Leadership in the Senate for nearly two decades, Senator Kennedy pioneered the US of Television in selling himself directly to the people.

When Kennedy defeated Johnston for the 1964 Democratic Nomination, Kennedy still needed Johnson to win the Presidency. No Democrat could win the Presidency then without taking Texas, and the Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower had won Texas in the last two elections, 56 and 60. So Kennedy needed Johnson on the ticket. For Johnson's position the Vice Presidency was his first national office and an important stepping stone to Johnson achieving the Presidency. Still the Kennedys delighted in lording their office over Johnson. Keeping him in the dark and denying him any participatory role in the administration. For the Kennedy's it appealed to their sense of justice, as that is what Johnson was famous for doing in the Senate. It was also necessary because Johnson was the antithesis of everything the Kennedys believed and were trying to achieve.

Question #2
Johnson was a dutiful vice-president and honored JFK's legacy by passing the civil rights act that Kennedy would likely have been incapable of passing himself.

As for Johnson seeming like a natural ally for Kennedy once Johnson became President. Johnson had long coveted the Office of the Presidency. As early as the 1930's Johnson insisted his staff call him LBJ because he believed it sounded more presidential. "LBJ, FDR, LBJ FDR, get it?" he told a staffer. In the 1950's Johnson had resurrected the Truman Committee, an investigatory committee on defense contractor fraud which Truman had used to vault himself into the national spot light and ultimately the VP office and Presidency. Where Truman's stewardship of the committee had saved the nation billions, Johnson's stewardship was more famous for getting him headlines. (cover of time magazine in 53, 60 for example).

After Kennedy was assassinated Johnson had to pivot in order to shore up his demonstrated (1964) political weaknesses in running a national campaign. Johnson had to solidify himself with with the Kennedy political machine and base constituency who were not his natural political allies. Johnson was a savy and long time political power broker, but he had never won national office before and his conservative segregationist policies which he was known for made him unelectable in much of the country. ( West Coast, Midwest, North East ). So Johnson threw himself into passing some of Kennedy's more ambitious policies which frankly kennedy had not been skilled enough to pass prior to his assassination. Johnson thus made his 1968 election a referendum on Kennedy, the slane president. Reintroducing Kennedy's failed Civil Rights Bill in Johnson's first national address to the nation days after the Assassination. As the countries hearts bleed for the slane president, Johnson tied all that emotion and support to himself in Calling for the passing of what would become the 1968 civil rights law, in the name of Kennedy.

John F. Kennedy was assassinated November 22, 1963. In Johnson's first national address as President Nov 27, 1967 Address in recounting Kennedy's ambitious program Johnson within the first three minutes of the 25 minute speech re-introduces the civil rights bill. "And above all the dream of equal rights for all Americans regardless of race or color", placing the dead civil rights bill at the center of the nations attention. Johnson then calls on the senate to pass it in the name of Kennedy. This "knobel" Kennedy dream, "must and will be translated into effective action". Johnson the life long segregationist then goes on to champion the civil rights bill through the Senate.

Which is how Johnson won his first and only national election in one of the largest landslides in American History, rebranding himself as a Liberal, which is not at all how Johnson had run and lost the 64 presidential nomination nor how he was known on Capitol Hill. A brilliant piece of pragmatic politics.

  • Good answer, but how did you manage to get so many years wrong? Everywhere you wrote '64 should have been '60 and '68 should be '64. Also, 67 should be 63 Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 2:35

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